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AUKUS puts pressure on Gulf countries trying to balance US and China

  • Giorgio Cafiero
  • 23 Sep 2021

The security pact has ratcheted up tensions between the US and China, one a traditional security guarantor in the Gulf, and the other, an ascendant power in the region.

A Saudi television anchor stands in front of the logo of the 41st Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at the media center in at Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. ( Amr Nabil / AP )

On September 17, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States unveiled AUKUS - a security pact which will help Australia build up to a dozen nuclear attack submarines in the coming two decades. 

The geopolitical reverberations of this trilateral deal, which aims to counter a rising China, are yet to be realised. Nonetheless, Indo-Pacific countries are on the frontlines and thus likely to feel the most heat as AUKUS increases tensions between these three English-speaking countries and Beijing.

Chinese officials quickly denounced this nuclear-submarine deal, accusing Canberra, London, and Washington of a “cold-war mentality”. To counter AUKUS’s emphasis on militarism, China will use its financial and economic clout to assert and expand its influence in numerous regions, including the Middle East. 

Iran’s acceptance into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full-fledged member, which occurred shortly after the unveiling of AUKUS, was a significant development that will undermine US efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic as much as possible. 

China will also continue working to gain more and more influence in the Arab Gulf sheikdoms too. Interestingly, China was determined to avoid allowing Iran’s new position in the SCO to lead to any perceptions of Beijing taking Tehran’s side in regional rivalries. That Beijing brought Saudi Arabia into the SCO as a “dialogue partner” underscored the type of balance that shapes Chinese foreign policy in the Gulf.

Indeed, the growing economic relationships between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and China have given the former reason to engage in ‘fence-sitting’ amid Washington and Beijing’s new “Cold War”. 

The view of China as an enemy is not popular in the Middle East, where practically all the governments have spent decades investing heavily in stronger relations with Beijing. At times, countries in the region have taken China’s side on issues that pit Beijing and Washington against each other - the human rights situation in Xinjiang being a salient example. Within this context, it is safe to assume that AUKUS will find few, if any, enthusiastic supporters among governments in the Middle East. 

Leaders in Gulf states are working to devise careful strategies for dealing with new geopolitical realities created by Washington and Beijing’s new “Cold War”. 

With all GCC members dependent on the US as their ultimate security guarantor but also increasingly reliant on China for oil/gas exports, the stakes are high for these six Arabian countries. 

Issues such as the role of Chinese tech companies in the Gulf sub-region are likely to put greater pressure on GCC states to ‘pick a side’ as tensions between the US and China heat up against the backdrop of AUKUS’s unveiling and Iran’s entry into the SCO. 

Less Trust in US-GCC Relations

Ultimately, as Gulf experts such as Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based political scientist, have explained, among GCC states there is a growing “trust deficit” when it comes to America. “The trend is more of China, less of America…There’s nothing America can do about it.” 

There is no denying that recent events in Afghanistan and many other catastrophic moments in US foreign policy throughout this century have pushed Gulf monarchies to see diversification of security relations as increasingly necessary. 

Some of the key episodes include the US- and UK-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Barack Obama’s response to chemical warfare in Syria a decade later, Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency, and particularly how Trump’s administration reacted to the Saudi Aramco attacks of September 2019. 

Yet the return of Afghanistan’s “Islamic Emirate” last month following a messy US withdrawal now raises all types of new concerns in GCC states about the wisdom of being so closely tied to Washington on defense and national security issues. This is especially so with new signs such as AUKUS which inform Gulf sheikdoms about the Biden administration’s increased focus on countering China at the expense of US attention paid to the Middle East.

“The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the recently announced AUKUS are clear indications that great power competition in the Indo-Pacific will shape Washington's foreign policy objectives around the world, and the Middle East is no exception to this new norm,” Mohammed Soliman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, told TRT World

“Capitals around the region will seriously consider diversifying their own security alliances to prepare for a post-‘War on Terror’ era, when the Middle East is no longer front and center to global geopolitics.”

As the Gulf monarchies seek greater diversification in their foreign relations due to growing trust issues in their partnerships with Washington, China will remain positioned to easily take advantage of such tensions between the US and its traditional partners in the Arabian Peninsula. How will the leaders in GCC capitals react to these dynamics if Gulf states soon have less room to maneuver? 

To be sure, the GCC members do not want a scenario whereby they must either join an American-led alliance against China or walk away from their decades-old partnerships with the US. From the Gulf monarchies’ perspectives, both scenarios would be extremely negative. 

Arabian sheikdoms realise that China is not intending nor desiring to replace the US as their security guarantor. But they also recognise that further geo-economic ascendancy of China is practically inevitable and anything they do to back Washington’s efforts to slow or reverse this rise would set them up for problems with Beijing.

Looking ahead, major geopolitical challenges that GCC members face in the 21st century will relate to difficult and sensitive questions about navigating rising temperatures in US-China relations. With there being bipartisan support in Washington for more militaristic approaches to countering Beijing, this new “Cold War” is unlikely to wind down anytime soon. 

Yet until it does, there is good reason in the Gulf to fear the repercussions of AUKUSand other developments that horrifyingly increase the risks of an actual armed conflict between the US and China.  

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com

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